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Monthly Archives: July 2008

Hangovers Remedied Madison-Style

Eggs and potatoesEmpanada Boy and I went to Madison the weekend before last, ostensibly for him to play a gig at his brother Drumstix’s law firm function. Little did EB know, but Drumstix had cooked up an elaborate scheme to surprise him with a bachelor party. The party was at one of the increasingly popular Brazilian steakhouses where you pay a flat fee and then chow down on as much grilled, skewered meat as possible. The flowing taps at the Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin, numerous drinks purchased for him by friends, a stop at another bar and a beer-filled hotel room made for a drunken night for EB. The morning left him feeling pretty worn out and ready to swear off bachelorhood forever. And what better place to cure his hangover than an old-time diner specializing in traditional breakfast fare, including giant pancakes, sweet rolls, milkshakes and malts? Popcorn Princess, Milkman and I met him and Drumstix at Mickie’s Dairy Bar.

HashMickie’s is something of a madhouse on a weekend morning, with many a college student working off the evening before just as EB was trying to do. We were able to get a good seat, though, in one of the tight little booths with Formica topped tables installed around the open kitchen area. The frying and grilling is all done behind the scenes, but ice cream, coffee and milkshakes are doled out from this central ring. Mickie’s is not the best place to visit when you’re on a pre-wedding diet (and EB never lost track of this overriding goal even in the thick of his Brazilian feast), so EB and I decided to share. Together, we ate two tasty sunny-side-up eggs with toast and well-seasoned potatoes, with a side order of corned beef hash. I’m including a picture of the latter here, despite its brown, lumpy appearance, to demonstrate my main beef with it— namely, that there was not enough beef. The corned beef hash was weighed down by too much potato, making it starchy and less juicy than my favorite hash at O’Rourke’s in Middletown, CT.

Blueberry CakePopcorn Princess ordered an omelet that looked like it took four eggs to make. It came with toast and potatoes. She couldn’t resist a side slice of the blueberry crumble coffee cake that was being dished up from a huge sheet pan from the central station. Drumstix ordered a rather compact looking breakfast sandwich— meat, egg and cheese on an English muffin.

The food was solid, the old-time atmosphere priceless. Indeed, the old fashioned decor made it clear why so many people turn to Mickie’s as the go-to weekend stopover. I’d still like to try a milkshake someday soon. Madison may have better breakfasts, but when it comes to killing hangovers, it’s best to stick to tradition.

Mickie’s Dairy Bar
1511 Monroe St.
Madison, WI 53711

¿Tapas? Sí. ¿España? No.

Mushrooms2As many of you know, I spent a summer in Spain in high school, traveling with some good friends who were on a sabbatical and taking care of their kids. My love of regional Spanish cuisine definitely began during that summer as we moved from Barcelona to Menorca to the Pyrenees, Asturias and the Basque Country. But it wasn’t until I returned to Madrid as a student during my sophomore year of college that started my simultaneous study of Spanish food. I took a cooking class in the home of a wealthy Spanish woman whose father had been high up in the Franco regime and who had learned to cook from the Spanish dictator’s own chef. In hands-on sessions, my classmates and I learned to make three kinds of gazpacho, pollo al ajillo, paella mixta, fabada asturiana, pisto manchego and much more. We also learned to make classic tapas like tortilla española, patatas a la brava, ensaladilla rusa and champiñones al ajillo. Everything we made in our teacher’s kitchen was delicious. But what I didn’t realize was how difficult it would be to recreate those flavors back home in the U.S. Like the baguettes of Paris, the ingredients of Spain— the tomatoes, the olive oil, the cured meats— have a unique flavor that comes from the way they are grown, produced and packaged.

SquidI have not been back to Spain since then, but I dream of being there. And I am always looking for a quick way back to those flavors. Because I’ve built up these expectations, tapas restaurants tend to be disappointing. That’s what I found at most of the so-called Spanish restaurants in Chicago. But everyone always asked me if I had tried Cafe Iberico, saying it was the best of the bunch. Finally, last week, I decided to give it a try. Empanada Boy went with our friends Matzah Man and Cilantrix— both Iberico fans— and our mutual friends Red Delicious and the Earl of Sandwich. Entering the restaurant was like entering a raucous sporting event in full swing. The cacophony— voices of patrons trying to communicate and the clatter as servers cleared (and more than once dropped) the hundreds of small plates— bounced right off the hard marble floor. It was hard enough to talk to my friends next to me, let alone order any tapas. I ordered a bottle of albariño and left the food ordering up to Matzah Man and Cilantrix. We ordered the champiñones a la plancha (shown above), which were satisfying, cooked in garlic and olive oil. We also tasted the pulpo a la plancha: grilled octopus, cut into pieces and served with a mound of greasy, soggy fries. A better dish was the calamares a la plancha (shown here), grilled squid bathed in garlic, lemon juice and a little too much olive oil.

The goat cheese, which came sitting in a pool of flavorful tomato sauce to be spread on bread layered with garlic-parsley oil, was boring and seemed Americanized. (Oh how I longed for the pan con tomate of Barcelona!) Mejillones a la marinera were fine, but similar to the run-of-the-mill variety offered at so many bistros.

Bread PuddingIt was the Earl of Sandwich’s birthday, so we ordered him a trio of flans. Each was a different flavor, but the all tasted like the raspberry syrup that was poured over them. A more sensitive saucing to highlight, instead of mask, the individual flavors, would have yielded better results. We also tried this bread pudding, which was good but tasted more like a dense, rich cake.

All things considered, I thought the food at Cafe Iberico was better than Emilio’s Tapas and Café Ba Ba Reeba, two other Spanish places in Chicago that I’ve tried. It also did a better job than many of the higher end small plates places of portraying tapas as they are meant to be: small and inexpensive accompaniments to drinks. That said, the food wasn’t amazing. Even when some good ingredients were used, they were often combined with too much not-very-flavorful olive oil or another overly greasy accompaniment. There was little of the freshness and vibrancy that I associate with Spanish ingredients. Once again, the tomatoes, olive oil and proteins lacked that distinctive Spanish flavor that would have really satisfied me. Granted, there were many dishes on the lengthy menu I didn’t try. But after leaving with my ears still ringing from the noise, I realized it was unlikely that I’d be back to order more.

Cafe Iberico
739 N. La Salle Dr.
Chicago, IL 60610

Cafe Iberico on Urbanspoon

Baba Ghannouj and the Bet Din

SaladsIt’s been two weeks since I last wrote a blog entry. I skipped over the past two weeks because I had little time to visit any restaurants, and as a result, little to say. Empanada Boy and I have also been very busy in the run-up to our wedding (three weeks from today!). This past weekend was a particularly momentous one: EB’s parents, his siblings and my mom were all in town to witness and celebrate his conversion to Judaism. Yes, as of Friday, EB is officially a Jew! The parents, EB and I drove out to a synagogue in Wilmette where EB met privately with a panel— called a bet din— made up of one rabbi and two cantors. They asked him questions to be sure he was ready to go ahead with the whole thing. Then we all went over to the ritual bath, or mikveh, where he was given instructions to strip, clean himself and immerse himself into the bath, saying some important prayers in between. The male cantor witnessed his immersion, but the rest of us could hear him recite the prayers. When he was done with the last one, we all called out: “mazel tov!” It was an emotional and exciting process that left us feeling hungry for lunch. What could be a more appropriate stop than a restaurant serving kosher Israeli and Morrocan food? Taboun Grill in Rogers Park was a perfect way to welcome the new Jew.

FalafelOur elation and emotional expenditure made us ravenous, and the delicious smell when we walked into the restaurant added to our eagerness to get food to our table. A tasty array of pickled vegetables, including beets, cucumbers and a hot pepper kept us occupied until we ordered appetizers. We decided to start with Moroccan Cigars— thin, crispy, sticks, reminiscent of Chinese egg rolls, which came filled with beautifully spiced ground beef. Falafel, served with hummus was our second appetizer. The freshly made balls had a crackly textured, and were well-seasoned. EB and I agreed these were the best we’d tried in Chicago. Feeling a little more sated, we settled down to await the arrival of our entrées.

Combination GrillTofutti Cutie ordered the eye-catching salad combination plate (pictured above), which came with hummus, Moroccan eggplant salad, purple cabbage and baba ghannouj. All were tasty, but I especially enjoyed the eggplant salad, which was rich a flavorful. A taboun is the oven used to make pita. And, indeed, the pita served on the side was exceptionally thick and fluffy with a nice char. Popover tried the fish pita made with tilapia. EB, Mango Mama and I were looking forward to trying the restaurant’s highly-touted meats. We couldn’t decide what to order, so we opted to share the Grill Combination platter and a schwarma pita. The pitas was packed with flavor and spices. Nothing about it was tame. But the combination plate stole the show. It had spiced meatballs called kefta, pieces of juicy steak and delicious chunks of chicken thigh. The meat was fantastic, juicier than any other kosher meat I’ve tried. Blood is drained from kosher animals when they are killed, usually making for a drier, chewier texture. This was not the case here. The only downside: kosher meat is expensive, which explains why our dish was $26. But this alone would have been enough to feed the three of us. I assume the same is true of the other meat entrées.

We finished our meal feeling completely stuffed, but satisfied. A friend of mine who went to Israel with me had mentioned Taboun Grill as the only place in the U.S. he’s tried that comes close to what we ate there. I will second his words and modify them; the food at Taboun Grill is better than most of what I remember eating in Israel. It was a meal fit for a special occasion, and EB’s entrance to Jewish life was just that kind of an auspicious event.

Taboun Grill
6339 N. California Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659

Taboun Grill on Urbanspoon